Drawing The Line On Drones: Maine, Massachusetts legislators ponder when drones can be used without a warrant

drone_constitution

Scott Thistle at the Bangor Daily News reports that the Maine Senate is now considering a bill regulating the use of drones.

The bill is the result of consultations including legislators of both parties, the ACLU of Maine, and the Defense of Liberty PAC. It imposes a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement in Maine, “except in emergencies”, pending a report from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy on how they could be used. However, the ACLU of Maine is unhappy with the version that has just passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a 7-6 vote, because it would in some circumstances allow police to operate drones without getting a Fourth Amendment compliant warrant. According to Thistle, the bill also does not make clear whether a drone could collect incidental footage that could later be used against a person other than the suspect detailed in a warrant.

There is also a Drone Privacy Act making its way through the Massachusetts legislature, though it is at an earlier stage and has the ACLU of Massachusetts’ strong support.

Perhaps the reason why the Maine bill has lost the support of the ACLU of Maine is that the “emergency exceptions” where a warrant is not required are rather broader in the Maine bill than in the Massachusetts bill. In Maine, the exceptions even include “conspiratorial activity that threatens the national security interest or is characteristic of organized crime”, which is vague, non-imminent, and broad enough to drive a truck through. The Massachusetts bill does not contain exceptions for those things.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, also objects to letting the police-run Criminal Justice Academy set the detailed rules for drone use. She states the problem plainly enough:

“The ACLU thinks that law enforcement should have a warrant before spying on Mainers with a drone and the [attorney general] does not. That’s the one issue where we cannot compromise.”

Good on you, Ms. Bellows. You have our full support.

Drowning in Data, Starved for Wisdom: The surveillance state cannot meaningfully assess terrorism risks

In this movie, we're Brad.
Pity the analysts.

The NSA has just vigorously denied that their new Utah Data Center, intended for storing and processing intelligence data, will be used to spy on US citizens. The center will have a capacity of at least one yottabyte, and will provide employment for 100-200 people. With the most generous assumptions [200 employees, all employed only on reviewing the data, only one yottabyte of data, ten years to collect the yottabyte, 5GB per movie], each employee would be responsible on average for reviewing 4500 billion terabytes, or approximately 23 million years’ worth of Blu-ray quality movies, every year.

 

Must...keep...watching...my...country...needs...me
Must…keep…watching…my…country…needs…me

This astounding and continually increasing mismatch shows that we are well beyond the point where law enforcement is able to have a human review a manageable amount of the data in its possession potentially relating to terrorist threats. Computer processing power doubles every two years, but law enforcement employment is rising at a rate of about 7% every ten years, and nobody’s going to pay for it to double every two years instead. Purely machine-based review inevitably carries with it a far higher probability that important things will be missed, even if we were to suppose that the data was entirely accurate to begin with – which it certainly is not.

So why is anybody surprised that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and one of around 750,000 people in the TIDE database, was not stopped at the border? That facial recognition software wasn’t able to flag him as a match for a suspect? That the fusion centers, intended to synthesize data into actionable “suspicious activity reports”, flag things too late for them to be of any use? That the Air Force is panicking a little at not having enough people to process the data provided by our drone fleet?

It’s in this context, then, that we should understand the calls for more surveillance after the Boston Marathon attacks for what they are. More cameras, more surveillance drones and more wiretapping, without many more humans to process the data, will make this problem worse, not better. These calls are being driven not by a realistic assessment that surveillance will help prevent the next attack, but by the internal incentives of the players in this market. Neither the drone manufacturers, nor law enforcement, nor elected officials, have an interest in being the ones to call a halt. So instead they’re promoting automation – automated drones, automated surveillance, and email scanning software techniques.

They are missing something very simple. We don’t need a terrorism database with 750,000 names on it. There are not 750,000 people out there who pose any sort of realistic threat to America. If the “terrorism watch list” were limited by law to a thousand records, then law enforcement would have to focus only on the thousand most serious threats. Given the real and likely manpower of the federal government, and the rarity of actual terrorism, that’s more than enough. If law enforcement used the power of the Fourth Amendment, instead of trying to find ways round it, it could focus more on the highest-probability threats.

Yes, they would miss stuff. That’s inevitable under both a tight and a loose system. But a tight system has the added advantages that it protects more people’s liberties, and costs a lot less.

UPDATE: With the help of a New Yorker fact-checker, the figure of “400 billion terabytes” above has been corrected to “500 billion terabytes”.

Panel Discussion on Privacy and Security, BU, April 24

If you are in the BU area on Wednesday evening, come by to hear interesting speakers talking about privacy and security in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks. Panelists will include Alex Marthews (that’s me!), James O’Keefe of the Massachusetts Pirate Party, and Gregg Housh. RSVP here.

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Microscope Monday: Massachusetts’ new drone privacy bill

A microscope, steampunk style.
A microscope, steampunk style.

Since our earlier analysis of the repellent new bill expanding electronic wiretapping was well-received, we’re starting an official series analyzing proposed Massachusetts legislation, called “Microscope Monday”.

In honor of the efforts to organize a new drone privacy group here in Massachusetts, this week’s bill is S. 1664 (Hedlund) / H. 1357 (Garry), “An act to regulate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles”.

State Senator Robert Hedlund is introducing this legislation in the Massachusetts Senate. Hedlund is a Republican and is the Assistant Minority Leader. His district covers Cohasset, Duxbury, Hingham, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell, Scituate and Weymouth. State Representative Colleen Garry is introducing the legislation in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She is a Democrat, and her district covers Dracut and Tyngsborough.

This is not a long bill, but it’s a good one, and we at Digital Fourth commend the sponsors for introducing it. It’s currently in the Committee on the Judiciary (House) and the Committee on Transportation (Senate).

Continue reading “Microscope Monday: Massachusetts’ new drone privacy bill”

That Didn’t Take Long: Fugitive Accused Cop-Killer Christopher Dorner Accused of “Domestic Terrorism”, Will Become First US Citizen on US Soil Targeted By Drones

If you needed any further evidence that it’s unwise to permit electronic surveillance to catch “terrorists”, USA Today has just provided it:

Dorner has been accused by police of the shooting deaths of three people, one of them a police officer and another the daughter of a former officer. […LAPD Police Chief Charlie] Beck said. “This is an act, and make no mistake about it, of domestic terrorism. This is a man who has targeted those who we entrust to protect the public. His actions cannot go unanswered.”

Dorner certainly seems to be guilty of multiple murders, and to have a beef with the LAPD over racist practices he witnessed as a serving police officer. But it seems that the chief of the nation’s second-largest police force has no goddamn clue what terrorism is.

Continue reading “That Didn’t Take Long: Fugitive Accused Cop-Killer Christopher Dorner Accused of “Domestic Terrorism”, Will Become First US Citizen on US Soil Targeted By Drones”

By 2020, There Will Be Eyes On Everyone: Implications of Universal, Mass, Peer-to-Peer Surveillance

We’re used to the fact that data storage technologies, once so sensationally expensive, are becoming drastically cheaper. What we don’t yet clearly realize is what that will mean for our everyday lives. Within ten years, it will be reasonably cheap to track every moment of your life. The technology already exists. You could each have a hovering Eye over your right shoulder, keeping an archive of all of your conversations and experiences. If you have an argument with your spouse in 2020, and disagree about something he said, you could simply ask the Eye to track back to that conversation and prove you right. Or wrong.

I sense an impending rise in divorce.

Drones are, as of January 2012, legal in US airspace, and are publicly available for sale. They will only get smaller, more powerful and more ubiquitous.

Continue reading “By 2020, There Will Be Eyes On Everyone: Implications of Universal, Mass, Peer-to-Peer Surveillance”

Free Essam Attia, Political Artist

Hey, kids! Worried about law enforcement using drones for surveillance? Well, maybe you oughta just shut your goddamn piehole on that, because here in the New America, complaining about that shit can get you arrested.

That’s right. In the home of the First Amendment (my third favorite Amendment, after the Fourth (obvs) and the Ninth (link provided)), if the NYPD doesn’t like you challenging their use of drones by, say, putting up satirical posters on a few phone booths in downtown Manhattan, they’ll throw the book atcha.

essam-attia-drone-poster

After a no doubt thorough tossing of his apartment, Maine-born artist and former military geospatial analyst Essam Attia has been charged with “56 counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument, grand larceny, possession of stolen property and weapons possession after allegedly having an unloaded .22-caliber revolver under his bed“.

I’m just guessing here, but “forged instrument” presumably means “satirical posters using the NYPD logo for First-Amendment-protected political speech”. The most serious charge, for possession without a license of a small-caliber unloaded handgun, wouldn’t even be a crime in most jurisdictions; Attia claims that the gun is an antique, which under New York state law would not require a permit.

Let’s sum up. The NYPD, in the course of an investigation into an extremely minor crime (described as “kiosk vandalism”, though the kiosks were not in fact damaged), go through every inch of the suspect’s apartment, and find material that under current laws can be used to support over fifty criminal charges. There’s no word from the NYPD or any press source about what the alleged stolen property is. If Attia is correct that the gun is an antique, there’s no basis for the charge. And yet they are still able to launch in, lock him up, and submit him to all the terror and trouble of the criminal justice system, because he embarrassed them in public. They have loaded him up with charges purely to serve as a deterrent to others thinking about criticizing the NYPD – and this is even before the NYPD has any actual drones out in the field.

cartman-autorita

Maybe this is just the NYPD’s artistic response to Attia’s artistic critique. And maybe they should just drop the charges, already. Jeez, people.

UPDATE: My own Congressman, Ed Markey, has just introduced the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act. It’s surely a good idea; but note that even one of the House’s most liberal members can offer up only that law enforcement agencies should be careful about their use of drones, not that we should stop or reverse the process of approving the use of drones for domestic law enforcement purposes.